Feelin’ the Blues (of Cheese)

If cheese is milk’s leap toward immortality, then blue cheese
stands out as the acrobat in the blue-spangled tights. Showy and
unmistakable, to some, blue cheese is a salad dressing; to others
it’s part of the buffalo wings ritual. Its distinct appearance and
flavor mean that people usually recognize it, and they usually have
an opinion about whether they like it.
If cheese is milk’s leap toward immortality, then blue cheese stands out as the acrobat in the blue-spangled tights. Showy and unmistakable, to some, blue cheese is a salad dressing; to others it’s part of the buffalo wings ritual. Its distinct appearance and flavor mean that people usually recognize it, and they usually have an opinion about whether they like it.

Blue cheese gets its characteristic veins and flavor from a mold called penicillium roqueforti that either exists naturally in the caves where it’s cured, as in France, or is injected into the cheese after the curds (the solid part) have been separated from the whey. Several countries have versions of blue cheese: France has Roquefort, England has Stilton, Denmark has Danablu, Italy has Gorgonzola and the United States has Maytag and other brands.

One difference that I learned from looking them up on the Web: Stilton and Maytag are both made from cows’ milk, while Roquefort is made from sheeps’ milk, and a specific breed of sheep at that: the lacaume, bred to be happy grazing on the rocky slopes of the Tarn region while being a good milk producer.

The Web site www.roquefort.fr was a model of detail, covering the known history, legends and current production methods of the cheese. The Stilton Web site didn’t say anything about which kind of cows are used, and Maytag didn’t have a Web site at all.

I decided to make part of my research a solitary tasting to compare the three most well-known types: Roquefort, Stilton and Maytag. These were all available at a local supermarket.

The Stilton looked so scary I almost didn’t buy it. In addition to the bluish mold, it was grayish-yellow to brown around the edges and, even in its plastic wrap, it looked kind of slimy.

The Maytag was also vacuum-packed in plastic and looked much more innocent. The Roquefort, a slender 3-ounce wedge, was in a rigid plastic resealable carton with a formal green label on the cover, showing the same attention to detail as the Roquefort Web site.

I took each of the cheeses out of its wrapping and let them come to room temperature before tasting them.

As I looked at the Stilton, it started to seem more civilized. It wasn’t in fact slimy, and I remembered the same brownish coloring from a time when a whole wheel of Stilton had been brought to our table in an English restaurant for after-dinner munching with Port wine and walnuts. The wedge was sprinkled throughout with fine-grained blue mold.

The Maytag almost looked like cream cheese: very white, with just the barest hint of blue veins running through it horizontally. There were no more veins to be found when I cut it in half crosswise.

The Roquefort was the moistest and whitest of all, with mold-lined holes rather than veins, some up to three-eighths of an inch in diameter, sprinkled liberally through it.

I gave each cheese a sniff in turn and found that the Stilton and Maytag both smelled yeasty, while the Stilton smelled slightly sweeter. By contrast, the Roquefort had a much milder smell – more like the faint scent of a cave – with surprising light floral notes.

I tasted the Maytag first, as I expected it to be the mildest. Instead, it hit the sides of my mouth with a sharp tang. There was in fact little difference in taste between the Maytag and the Roquefort. The real standout to my palate was the Stilton, with a much nuttier, deeper, almost wine-like taste. After this comparison, I could easily see why the happy tradition of serving Stilton with Port and walnuts has persisted.

These cheeses all deserve to be served by themselves or with few adornments. For most recipes, I would use the less costly pre-crumbled blue cheese also sold in most deli departments.

Here, from the “Great Grilled Cheese” cookbook by Laura Werlin, is a meal-in-the-hand take on buffalo wings.

Blue Cheese Sandwiches

makes 4 sandwiches

For the spread:

5 ounces blue cheese, crumbled

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup sour cream

2 tsp. lemon juice

2 Tbs. Chopped chives

1 rib celery, finely chopped, plus extra ribs for serving

Freshly ground pepper

Stir all spread ingredients together and set aside. The spread can be made up to two days ahead and refrigerated.

For the Sauce:

4 Tbs. (1/2 stick) butter

1 1/2 Tbs. Hot sauce

1 1/2 tsp. vinegar

In a small saucepan, combine the ingredients and warm over low heat until the butter is melted. Keep warm over lowest heat.

For the chicken and assembly:

1/4 cup olive oil

2 whole boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut in half lengthwise and pounded to 1/4 inch thick

Salt and freshly ground pepper.

4 4-inch pieces of focaccia, cut in half, or use soft rolls or sourdough.

Step 1: Heat 2 Tbs. of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Place the chicken in the skillet and cook for 2 minutes until the undersides are no longer pink. Turn and cook 2 to 3 minutes more until the chicken has turned a light brown color and feels firm to the touch but still slightly springy. Remove from the heat and set aside until chicken is cool enough to handle.

Step 2: Dip the chicken pieces in the sauce, making sure they are thoroughly coated, then set them on a plat. Wipe the skillet with paper towels.

Step 3: Pull out some of the center of each piece of bread, or each half of the rolls. Brush the outside of each piece with the remaining olive oil. Place four bottom pieces on work surface, oil side down. Spread about 2 Tbs. of the spread on each, and top with a chicken piece. Place the remaining four pieces of bread on top, oiled side up.

Step 4: Reheat the skillet over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Put the sandwiches into the skillet , press firmly with a spatula to compress the bread, cover, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes until the undersides are golden brown. Uncover, turn, press with the spatula and cook for 1 to 2 minutes more until the undersides are once again golden brown. Turn again and cook for 30 seconds.

Step 5: Serve with extra blue cheese spread and celery on the side.

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